by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
After being closed for more than a month, Firestorm Cafe & Books in downtown Asheville is finally open again. Firestorm closed its doors to renovate the space and revise their management structure for the first time since it opened four years ago. They celebrated their grand re-opening Monday, Oct. 29, ushering in a slightly different system of organization, with new visions about the goals of Firestorm.
Since it began in May of 2008, Firestorm has been a worker-owned, self-managed collective.
“We’re working against the employer/employee paradigm,” said Liberty Valance, one of the eight worker/owners of Firestorm.
The collective is operated by consensus decision-making.
“Everyone who is a part of the collective has equal access and equal say,” Valance said.
Furthermore, everyone in the collective also has an equal share in the business, so that there is no hierarchy whatsoever.
The collective decided to close their doors for a short period in order to tear up the carpet and improve the space, but, according to ALou Long, who used to attend Warren Wilson and who now works at Firestorm, the workers realized there were more changes that were necessary other than just fixing up the physical space.
“It dawned on everyone at the same time,” Long said. “We had gotten to a skeleton crew.”
The collective, which is normally made up of 10 or 12, was only six people when Firestorm closed in September. The small number of people working at Firestorm was unsustainable.
“A lot of factors needed to be evaluated,” Long said.
Since its reopening, Firestorm has made several changes that have not only improved worker productivity, but have also enhanced the space itself, and the resources it offers to the community.
The community space has been previously seen primarily as a cafe, according to Valance, but the collective hopes to shift the focus away from just the cafe, so that roles of Firestorm are more equally balanced: cafe, venue and bookstore.
Some extra seating in the cafe has been replaced by additional bookshelves, which reflect Firestorm’s goal to increas the amount of books they have for sale 50% by 2013, and doubling it by 2014.
“I encourage people to sit down and read a book if they can’t afford it, or even if they can,” Long said.
According to Long, Firestorm is the only place in Asheville where people can use the bathroom and use computers for free.
“You don’t need to have a monetary input to be a part of Firestorm,” Long said.
These principles and many others distinguish this collective from other businesses. The workers at Firestorm are not paid a regular wage. Rather, under what they call a “labor of love,” every worker is paid a stipend, 12% of whatever Firestorm made over the course of two weeks, which usually amounts to anywhere between $3 to $6 an hour.
Firestorm is also different because, unlike other businesses, they do not borrow money from banks.
“We’ve been a debt-free and loan-free business since our doors opened,” Long said. “We’re not enslaving ourselves to a huge loan that the collective would have to shoulder.”
Instead, Firestorm simply didn’t pay its workers when they first opened almost five years ago.
“There’s a trade-off when you don’t take out loans,” Long said.
The collective didn’t borrow money when they closed for a month, either. Instead, to pay for rent and the renovations that were being done, they relied on community funding. They sold gift cards during the time that they were closed, which are now redeemable for 110% of what they were purchased for.
“We don’t ever ask for donations,” Valance said. “We’re looking for ways that build relationships. [Selling gift certificates] meant that we’d see those people again. It feels like it’s a continuation of a relationship.”
Walking into Firestorm today, the atmosphere is a lot different than it was earlier this Fall. The ugly green carpet has been torn up, bookshelves have been added, the menu has been revamped, but the most important change is perhaps less discernable less discernable to Firestorm’s patrons.
“For the management restructure, we reopen and maybe no one sees that,” Valance said. “But it’s a basic way to help sustain ourselves, so that we’re still here in another two years.”